Energy drinks seem to be everywhere these days. With punchy and promise-filled names — like Red Bull, a mega-seller worldwide, with more than 1 billion cans purchased last year; amp Energy and amp Energy Overdrive; No Fear; Adrenaline Rush; Full Throttle; Rip It; Tahitian Noni International's Hiro; Trek; Red and Blue from Anheuser-Busch; and Arizona Green Tea Energy Drink — these beverages have blasted their way into public consciousness and consumption, especially with young people.
In the culture of grab-it and go, the drinks' convenient soda-can size and eye-catching graphics help make them even more attractive and appealing.
So popular have the drinks become that convenience-store chains, including WaWa, now sell their own brands. A caffeine-and-cream drink called DoubleShot is Starbucks' entry into the market, while a coffee-based Boccacino — in six flavors that include mint — sit on supermarket shelves.
Analogous to the rush to retail the drinks is the way car-makers have hit the showroom and the road with their own SUV versions, capitalizing on and creating demand in one fell swoop.
From the relative innocence and generally healthful qualities of Gatorade — it doesn't contain caffeine, but does have high-fructose corn syrup in it — a drink concocted in 1965 to assist sweated-out athletes at the University of Florida, where the mascot is an alligator, energy drinks have evolved into anything but sports-related activities. To make a big play today is to drink them to get "buzzed," as well as to be trendy and fashionable among peers and friends.
"Kids are being targeted because they're easily impressed by how these drinks are marketed and by the packaging, but the truth is that all the drinks are is sugar-water — and they do add extra calories," says Lisa Hark, Ph.D., R.D., a specialist in children's nutrition and the director of the Nutrition Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania for the past 17 years.
"We have an obesity crisis among kids in the United States now, so if a kid burns up 300 calories and adds 500 by drinking these drinks, that doesn't help. Kids are also drinking them to get a jolt or a buzz."
Where's the Beef?
A case in point is Hansen's Energy Pro Energy Supplement, in a flashy green, yellow, orange and black can. The drink's ingredients, first through last, are carbonated water (the base liquid for many energy drinks), high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, taurine, citric acid, malodextrin, ascorbic acid, panax ginseng root extract, gum acacia, natural flavors, ginkgo biloba leaf extract, caffeine, guarana seed extract, niacinamide, turmeric (color), ester gum, riboflavin, pyridoxine hydrochloride and cyanocobalamin.
As for sports drinks, such as Gatorade, POWERade, All Sport and others, Hark says that they "were invented to replenish carbohydrates and electrolytes, and to prevent dehydration among athletes. Now, they are being drunk by people who aren't sweating, so there are some serious misconceptions about them, including what they are and who needs them."
From SoBe, a company owned by Pepsi-Cola, comes a line of energy drinks called Essential Energy. Besides No Fear and Adrenaline Rush, these include namesake Essential Energy, which comes in berry-pomegranate and orange, too.
But here's, perhaps, the really pertinent question: Are these drinks safe?
"To put it in perspective, I want to point out that, ounce for ounce, our energy drinks have about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee," explains Michelle Naughton of the public-relations department at Pepsi-Cola North America in Purchase, N.Y.
"Energy drinks appeal to people who are looking for an added boost of energy, whether as a substitute for morning coffee or even as an afternoon pick-me-up," she continues. "All of the products in our portfolio are meant to be enjoyed by responsible adults."
As a nutritionist, Hark has a different viewpoint.
"In my opinion, I would rather people eat berries or drink pure pomegranate juice, because the amount of berries and juice in energy drinks is so low that all people are getting from the drinks is too many calories," she retorts.
Hark's advice for parents is to buy energy/sports drinks in the smallest quantities possible, cut their contents by mixing them with water, and strictly limit how many their kids are drinking.
"Parents must read the labels and educate themselves about the ingredients, and they have to restrict their kids to just one of the drinks a day — no more than eight ounces — and limit themselves also to just one a day and no more than 12 ounces," she says.
"The problem," she adds, "is that young people are drinking energy drinks in huge quantities — as much as 36 ounces a day."
For more complete information on energy and sports drinks, says Hark, parents can log on to: www.nutritiondata.com.
Kids and teenagers shouldn't have any caffeine, she said.
An 8.3-ounce can of Red Bull, for example, has a lot of caffeine — about one-half cup — Hark acknowledges. Instead, she recommends that the best beverages for those under 18 are water and low-fat milk.
Another problem with energy drinks is that not many of them come in diet form, notes Hark, so, once again, the amount of sugar being ingested is a major concern.
At Drexel University's College of Medicine, David Berkson, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine who also works in sports medicine, says that "a lot of energy drinks aren't energy drinks at all, but stimulants that contain caffeine and natural products, such as herbs, as well as a number of non-essential ingredients, such as taurine, a non-essential amino acid."
His bottom-line advice is to avoid so-called "energy drinks."
Berkson recommends getting energy in healthier ways — basically, by eating a balanced diet and by diluting these types of drinks with water, if they are used at all. As far as "vitamin water" — it's technically not an energy drink, though it lies in the same general sphere — "unless someone isn't getting their vitamins through their diet, these shouldn't be used without some care," he says.